Bukhara Photos

So, here are some new photos. They begin here and then go backwards.

Most of these are from the environs of Bukhara and are new. As in new, meaning, these are places I have never seen before, myself.

Actually, the Ismail Samanid Mausoleum, I’m a bit embarrassed to note I didn’t know it existed the first time I came through in 2003. In 2004 I had learned about it, but forgot to see it as I was busy with something else. Just what, I cannot recall. So I was damned well going to see it this time. And I did. It’s an important piece of architecture in the region and presages a lot of developments, and ornament the Seljuk Turks will carry with them into Iran and subsequently into Anatolia.

Speaking of Turks, the photos of the Malik-i-Rabat, a giant fortress along the Royal Road between Samarkand and Bukhara, I am glad to have. This fortress, too, is important and presages tools and tricks and styles and techniques the Turks are soon to take with them as they begin their last migratory leg towards Anatolia.

The full Silk Road set is here.

Bandwidth is a serious concern here in Bukhara, so photos are limited to essentials.

But, as always, enjoy!

More Photos From Samarkand

It always happens. I’ve been ill the last 36 hours. It happens. But I’m better now.

Here is the full set. 

And here is the place to start where we left off.


Samarkand I Hardly Knew Ye!

Arrived in Samarkand last night.

I was totally shocked. The city has changed from the quaint dump it was in 2003, to a masterpiece of modern urban planning.

Seriously, I hate towns that are renovated. But whoever planned this and executed it: bravo. It has not been Disneyfied, but dignified.

I’ll have photos of town in the coming days and you can compare and contrast from those in 2003.

But for now here are photos from the Bishkek to Osh journey over the mighty Tien Shan. Holy moly. What a drive. What an experience.

As always the full set is here. And you can start from where we left off, here. 

Bishkek Quick Hit

The last time I was here in was 2003 and the Iraqi insurgency was just getting started. Most people thought I was nutsto be coming out here. They were probably right.

Last time I was in Bishkek it was a bit more than halfway on my journey from Istanbul to Bombay via Tibet. Those last two weeks in India were tough, especially after the car wreck coming down from the Everest Base Camp. That sucked. Two weeks in India with three herniated discs. Not so fun. Not that India is ever really fun. It’s always compelling, but fun? No. But I digress.

Has Bishkek changed?

Interesting question.

Yes and no.

Physically: yes. There is some new construction. There are no more Ladas or Zhigulis or Volgas on the road. Most of the cars are Japanese. And not only Japanese but grey market Japanese in the sense that the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, but they drive on the same side of the road as the US does. Strange. Lots of Hondas. A few Mercedes. There are more mobile phones on the street. The facades of buildings are renovated somewhat, but they are still the same Kruschev or Brezhnev era brutalist constructions.

The people are still a mix of East and West. One will find the occasional blond with Asian eyes. And one will find the occasional pure Mongol-looking man or woman with deep blue or green eyes. It’s jolting. But mostly they are a mix. I do not hear any English on the street. I hear some Russia and some Kyrgyz. Mostly Kyrgyz, but it’s close to 50/50.

One large change: lots of women in hejab. Back in 2003 it was simply unheard of for women to be totally covered in Bishkek. Maybe a headscarf on an old babushka. But a young twentysomething in all black? Political Islam is everywhere.

I’ll have more soon. Hoping to head to the mountains tomorrow so I’ll be out of touch for two days at the least.

Here are a few photos to tide you over until then. 

A Delicate Dance

Rolling into Flores as late as we did I stressed finding a decent hotel. Not to worry: La Casona de la Isla, a little boutique hotel (a term I use very loosely for Guatemala) came complete with hot showers, an air conditioner, two beds, a pool, wifi (for father’s epic iPhone addiction) and a lovely breakfast balcony view of Lago Peten Itza.

SPK FTW! (For you oldtimers out there, that means “Sean Paul Kelley For The Win!”)

Day-glow canoesOver breakfast, as day-glow dugout canoes with outboard motors slid across the lake and docked just below us, father and I decide to make for Tikal today instead of tomorrow, which in hindsight was an excellent call. Had we gone Saturday we’d have been fucked trying to return our rental car, not to mention that Saturday proved to be a gray, gloomy and overcast day, one not at all conducive to jungle photography, especially at Tikal. Instead, it was a “necessary day” (a day when father and I do our own thing, alone) on which I relaxed and walked around the island and did a little bit of Christmas shopping, but more about that later. Maybe.

We ate our breakfast, mine was a lovely pair of huevos divorciados, one egg covered in green salsa and the other covered in red—both divine—refried beans, fried bananas and as many of those little maize tortillas they make in Guatemala as I could eat. All washed down with carafes of fresh coffee right off the mountains.
Huevos Divorciados a la Gautematelco
The first thirty kilometers of the drive to Tikal was little but rolling and treeless grassy hillsides. I passed through them feeling ill at ease. Whole fields are depressions of black water and cattails, attracting all measure of birds but for some reason no mosquitos. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year? Or we just got lucky? But I was not bitten by a single mosquito the entire time I was in the Peten.

This mostly treeless landscape—the jungle is not supposed to be open or have a horizon—had been cleared within the last three or four decades by rancheros. For you norteños that means cattle ranches. Here’s how it works: the pristine jungle is torn to shreds, or euphemistically speaking “the land is cleared.” Then cattle graze on it for three or four years until the grasses have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The cattle are then sold up north for ground beef to McDonald’s, Burger King and their ilk. We’re not talking about Kobe beef here. Then the rancheros move on to the next twenty miles of jungle they can clear cut and start the whole process over just so we can Super Size It!

The rancheros, all of them, have a bleak, worn out feeling. And though this is a deeply tropical landscape, one I am culturally conditioned to assume to be ever growing, inexhaustible, regenerative and forever waiting to re-devour civilization like some pathetic palimpsest of an Indiana Jones movie, that assumption is wrong. The exhaustion of the land here—although it is still green, and crazy with vines, succulents and other parasitical plants—reminds me of what happened to the exhausted land back home: our hills, once covered by a lush golden carpet of gramma, buffalo and other great grasses are now covered with the invasive Juniper we call Cedar, or other opportunistic species, which leach out what little nourishment remains and every January or February reproduce, causing an orgy of Cedar Fever from San Antonio through Austin clear up to the middle Brazos Country. Just as at home, here too the land has been gang-raped, and left to die. Will the rancheros here have the same good fortune of moving into the cities to build airplanes and cars like they did in mid-twentieth century America? Doubtful. And what of the eroded treeless hillsides, decaying rusted hulks of Toyotas, corrugated iron roofed shacks and plastic bags? Will the land be given another thousand years to regenerate like it was after the Maya collapse?

Ill kept fences, half up, half down line the road.

“To keep what in?” I ask father aloud, breaking the silence.

“To keep what out?” He replies.
Cleared Land
Unbranded cattle wander across roads as freely as chickens and dogs and pigs. Allspice and asphalt mingle in the humid air. The further in the Peten we drive the more lush the vegetation grows. On occasion half a hillside is bereft of any cover except grass. The other half, however, is a thick, deep pile carpet of flora sometimes olive at others a twinkling emerald under a leaden sky. The jungle is overtaking mankind’s scars now. The road is almost covered by trees. Bromeliads bloom, what specific species I know not, but the pinkish flowers add a wistful touch to the drive. The sun is high now and just beginning to burn off the morning gray.

Fewer lands and even fewer people have endured more surreal and hideous scars than what the Mayan’s have endured (and in many places still continue to endure) since the Spanish first arrived. This region of the Mayan world wasn’t completely conquered until 1697, and even then it was held only tenuously until after the great Caste War in the Yucatan during the 1840s. Even so, an independent city-state existed in Quintana Roo until the 1920s. That’s the Mayan model: city-states. Scholars have pointed out that the Mayan were to the Aztecs at Tenochitlan what the Greeks were to the Romans. It makes sense, even to this day, the way the Maya remain fragmented in the high cordillera of Guatemala, speaking several different languages, having endured genocide at the hands of the whites and Mestizos who rule Guatemala even now.

I recall myself as a callow youth (there goeth a man?) during the late Eighties piously reciting anti-communist bromides about dominoes and Castros and Ortegas. Such blasphemies I spoke, utterly oblivious to an unimagined suffering occurring at the very moment: families ripped apart, fathers frog-marched into the jungle to dig shallow graves and then executed, daughters raped, sons killed or those even more unlucky, pressed into the army to commit similar atrocities against “subversivos” in Guatemala.
All Gunned Up
No wonder I am ill at ease: a deep sadness permeates this place. It is a sadness I have not known since I visited Cambodia (I got stinking drunk the night I saw the killing fields. And you would have too, had you seen what I saw). Could it be the depth of historical loss? Profound silences echo across the Peten. One such echo is that of a single conscientious 17th century Spanish friar, Andres de Avendaño, who translated the Mayan glyphs into Spanish and how that single copy of his life’s work disappeared.

But it’s not just history’s loss. The hint of liminal brutality is present even now, for everyone, everywhere has an armed guard and all of them carry sawed-off pump action .12 gauges. Not only is the land exhausted, but so are its people.

Roadside HawkA largish bird in the middle of the road plucks me from my grim reveries. I grab my camera, focus and start shooting. Digital photography is fantastic. I can take as many shots as I wish and delete what I don’t like.

“What is he?” Dad asks.

“Here, hold the wheel,” I reply. “I’m trying to figure it out. He’s a raptor, for sure, but I’ve never seen one with his coloring.”

“And that is?”

“Kinda grayish, with darker stripes underneath, with a touch of reddish, but a kind of dirt red. He’s got yellow feet, yellow beak with a blue tip. Big yellow eyes, too!” I say and put the car in first, better to creep up on it while the camera is shooting. I get closer, snap more shots.
Roadside Hawk
“Strange. He knows I’m here and getting closer but he’s just hanging out. He seems quite comfortable in the middle of the road. He’s eating something but I can’t quite tell what. He’s a beauty,” I tell Dad. “Grab your binoculars, take a look.”

“He is a little on the gray side, but his breast feathers are lined, striped, definitely a hawk. And you’re right he’s got lovely yellow feet, a prominent yellow beak that ends in an almost blue gray curved tip,” says Dad.

The hawk watches me with a wide open gorgeous yellow eye as I get out of the car to snap more photos. I get too close and he flies.

But not too far, only twenty or thirty feet away and then he squawks, clearly irritated that I interrupted his feeding. I smile, knowing I have some nice photos, and my inner-Buddhist thanks the bird for his cooperation.

We drive on (short video of drive through jungle at link).

Several plain Chachalacas fly across the road and around a long curve I see a dozen Oropendola nests hanging like yarn covered tennis-balls from a Ceiba Tree, the tree Mayans believe connects this world with that of the underworld, Xibalba. Then we see a Bat Falcon. Why in the middle of the day, I don’t know, but still, there he was, orange and blue and white atop an empty tree.
Bat Falcon
The area around Flores and the Lago Peten Itza is a shallow limestone depression, the lake the deepest part of it. Peten Itza is an odd shaped lake: long and narrow, running from west to east and then cutting south, then even more narrowly cutting back east. It is in this smaller, southerly aspect of the lake that the Island of Flores sits. But we are now on the far eastern end of the lake, having driven all the way around it, at a small town, actually a village, called El Remate.
Map of Lake Peten Itza
The view along the lake is irresistible so we stop for lunch. We sit in an apsidal thatched-roof Mayan hut where hammocks hang from the piers. We order a simple meal of chicken, jungle vegetables and rice. I ask a local, sitting in a hammock, what kind of hawk it was we saw on the road in. I described it and then showed him a photo on my camera.

“This is what we call a Roadside Hawk,” he says in perfect English. I was disappointed with the name, but it certainly fit.

My surprise at his English registered.

“I lived in Nevada for a few years building houses,” he said. “Saved my money, came back, got married, built this restaurant and now I live in paradise.” He smiles and slides back into the hammock.
Lago Peten Itza
“It is lovely,” I return the smile and then walk towards the lake.

I bend down to see strange vegetal growth apparent in the limpid waters. Tempted to drink it, I know better, and yet I don’t get the sense the lake is overflowing with industrial effluents. If there were any pollution at all it seemed it should be simple runoff from a handful of small towns (more like large villages) along the lake and at worst, the lake serves as the sewer for Flores and Santa Elena. That hunch turns out to be true. The most recent study done in 2011 by the University of San Carlos and a handful of NGOs notes drily that most of the pollution in the lake is within acceptable levels but that the local communities need to be better educated in sanitation practices. Plus, the government in Guatemala City needs to invest in water treatment for the area as a whole to protect one of the country’s most important tourist resources. Good luck with that, I think to myself.

Coincident to my pondering of filth and its disposal a pig begins frolicking and wallowing in the lilly-pads, muck and mud lining the lake. He is as pink as pigs come and I wished, silently, to be around, when he was butchered for fatback. Organic bacon is hard to beat.Wild Bacon!

There were also half a dozen shores birds, sandpipers and plover-types poking, digging, snatching up whatever kind of bug life they could find with their long bills. The pig snorted at me, came within a few feet and probably caught my bacon vibe and trotted off.

I was unable to identify most of the birds for the pigs curiosity scared them off before I could get any decent photos. Regardless, shore birds aren’t my strong suit. One bird, however, was singing behind some growth about ten to fifteen yards out in the lake. He sang a high pitched, accelerating rattle and dumb old me is looking around trying to find out from which direction the noise is emanating.

I’m looking around to see just who is making this sound and then it gets faster, a jik-jik-jik-jik. Then it stops.

Then the whole thing starts again. Then I see him.

“Oh,” I say aloud, “it’s that ugly little brown bird out there in the mud flats,” pointing towards it for the benefit of my father.

Just as the thought clears my synapses and the words pass my lips that plain ugly brown bird jumps five feet straight up into the air, wings spread open.

My jaw hit the ground. The Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa) is, first and foremost a bird with the largest toes I’ve ever seen, each six inches long if not longer. The outside half of his wings are a delicate butterfly yellow—and to the Mayans butterflies are the souls of their dead loved ones—that blend into a thick, chocolate brown. At each main joint in the wing bones there was a gold medallion that made it look as if his eyes were in the middle of his wings. An unsurprising, but lovely, evolutionarily defensive adaptation making the animal appear to have a larger face than it apparently does. From where the breast meets the neck is a darker brown, merging to black all the way to the eyes, above which is a strange formation, like a medieval shield but sideways across the Jacana’s head. This gave him an oddly large yellow brow. When the bird looked directly at me, once he landed from his dance, he was decidedly neanderthalish.
Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa)
While I stood dumbfounded on the lakeshore, begging the bird to dance again so I could get photos this time, melodious blackbirds chanted from a power line behind me, and I fancied they were saying, “go ahead, dance for the stupid human one more time. At least he’s not trying to eat us.”

I was lucky. The moment was forever in his simple dance: rattle, rattle, jump. Wings open, glide, land, wings close.


And then he sprung up twice as high, did a three-sixty, as if to bow, and flew away.


The full sequence of the Northern Jacana’s dance can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The most recent photos can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The full set can be seen here. Enjoy!

Flinging Boogers During History Class

StudyI’m reading a book of historical criticism by Gordon S. Wood presently. I am enjoying it. He’s a cantankerous old fart who doesn’t approve of anyone’s version of history, not even his own. That’s the best type of historian if you ask me. Humility like that takes you a long way. But I digress.

I’m reading his book and came across this sentence about Turner’s “frontier thesis” on American history. You all know it—at least you should—how the frontier being open for so long was one thing that allowed America the space to create institutions of democracy and liberty. (I know, I know, just bear with me, okay?)

So I get to this sentence, “Although Turner’s particular “frontier thesis” has long since been modified or discredited, the general assumption of his interpretation—that American society can best be understood as a response to the circumstances of the New World—have remained very much alive through the twentieth century.”

And for some reason the rotund and orotund voice of Winston Churchill began a replay loop in my head, until I was reminded of a famous quip by him.

WinstonSo, he meets the then socialist prime minister in the men’s room of Parliament and backs way away at the other end of the long urinal and the PM says, “why so standoffish today Winston?”

Winston replies, “well, every time you see something big you want to nationalize it.”

Oh, wait, wrong anecdote. Sorry, I was thinking about the one (most likely apocryphal) when he is lambasted by an opponent of Jackie Fisher’s reforms to the Royal Navy.

Churchill’s opponent screeches his imprecation at Churchill across the hallowed chamber of the House of Commons in Parliament, “why, you’ll destroy the customs of the Royal Navy!”

“And what are those customs,” bellows Churchill in return, “I shall tell you in three words: rum, sodomy and the lash.”
Royal Navy
Indeed, I have always held the particular belief that America’s peculiar greatness came from three things: slavery, genocide and the Royal Navy.

Am I wrong?

First, African slaves built the New World, not Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons owned the Africans what built it. I don’t giving a flying single-horned white pony that farts rainbows what you think. I am right about this.

Second, Africans built the New World on land that was stolen from First Nations who were (in most cases knowingly) obliterated by disease that they had no defense against. This was done in the first case. Bartolome de Las Casas was writing about how the Spaniards were already doing this in 1542. That’s only fifty years after the “discovery.” And it was done in the last cases, too.

Now, to label this genocide is to commit an historical sin called anachronism, as the term didn’t exist until the early 1950s when Ralph Lemkin coined it. But so what: that’s what happened. Our ancestors—yes, yours and mine (unless you’re African American or of Native American ancestry) engaged in one of the, if not the, greatest genocidal run ever committed in history by killing off all the First Nations. Chief Pontiac, Purposefully Infected With Smallpox By American Settlers and British SoldiersTo add insult to injury the only ones left over were shuffled off on to the worst land in the entire nation imaginable: Oklahoma. After the Indians were gone white settlers brought their chattel slaves to do the heavy lifting of farming and such.

Finally, what protected this 125-50 year recurring cycle of events?

The British navy.

America was made great by slavery, genocide, rum, sodomy and the lash.

Glorious, ain’t it?


Guatemala: A Microcontinent All Of Its Own

Vulcan de AguaGuatemala occupies a strange place on the map of the world. Take a look at it. The best way to understand Guatemala geographically and geologically speaking is this: picture a very fat reversed capital “L.”

Across the bottom, horizontal, line is the Cordillera, a very high mountain range created by the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate, for good measure the North American plate pushes down on Guatemala. Most of the rocks in this range are igneous, usually volcanic but there are some places in Guatemala where one can find mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are rocks created when the plates separate in the deep mid-oceanic ridges and eons later, after moving across the bottom of the ocean, are thrust high up into the skies by continents colliding. This is why you find fossilized seashells in the Dolomitic Alps, which once were a great coral reef. Mantle rocks are found, exclusively in mountains where they have been uplifted, like Cyprus, California and other places. California’s serpentinite is a good example, as seen in two photos attached, one close-up and the other an outcrop near Yosemite National Park.

Like most “highlands,” languages proliferate, such as in the Caucasus and Papua New Guinea, which both have hundreds of languages. In Guatemala there are roughly 20 languages up in the mountains, which is one good reason to return: just to see and experience so many different cultural groups crammed into one small area. I do not know the native dialect the Mayans of the Peten region; I’ve been told it’s Yucatecan, but I’ve also heard of at least two more Mayan languages, both of which I could never pronounce, even if I tried. I will discuss the languages of Guatemala, later, in a separate post.

More dramatically, along the east-west axis of the bottom line of our “L” volcanoes are very common. In fact, I am looking at one right now.

SerpentiniteThe vertical line of our imaginary capital “L” is karstic, limestone, hilly, eroded, uneven and covered in a blanket of deep pile, luxuriant green jungle. The vertical “L” is also mostly one geological unit: the North American plate’s margin, a vast limestone plateau and former seabed of soft, malleable rock. In some places Karst topographies can take wild shapes, like the area around Guilin, China and Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve also seen some strange karst in Belize, but have no photos. This kind of geological unit is also prone to sink holes and caverns, hence the perpetual fascination with sinkholes that just “appear” in Guatemala. (Side note: sinkholes, or cenotes, also serve as great places for archeology, as the Classical Maya used them as garbage dumps.) Peten Itza, the lake we stayed on in Flores, is a shallow depression in this geological feature that has filled up with water. This limestone is not, as the geologist would say, a competent rock. A product of uneven, unsteady erosion the lake is proof of the incompetent rock.

Now, run a diagonal line at 45* between the vertical line and the horizontal: this northeast to southwest running line roughly corresponds to the Rio Motagua valley, the main river that drains this massive rain shadow valley. The valley is semi-arid, complete with cacti, other succulents and sandy soils that are perfect for growing the tasty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. As I mentioned earlier this valley is smashed between three mighty geological units: the Cocos Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate.

I mentioned all of this mostly for your edification, but also for two separate but fascinating reasons.
First, as we were driving down the valley, literally down, but bearing northeast, I spied what looked to be like green rocks to me. A clear hint of the trauma the rocks in the hills have undergone were the shattered roadcuts, outcroppings and multiple faults visible in the roadside. Imagine what the underlying rock looks like? This little country is the earthquake hotel and its own microcontinent all rolled into one.

Some of the stone was hard igneous, some was sandstone, some metamorphic and other plain limestone. But here and there about halfway down the mountains green rocks proliferated. I simply had to stop and look at the rock. Indeed, it was serpentinite.

“Now,” you ask, “why do I give fig about a green rock?”

Answer: there is a very special element that precipitates through serpentinite. Its abbreviation in the Periodic Table is “Au,” and the Spanish had a sickness for it that destroyed two great empires and countless smaller societies. Over time gold will, indeed, given enough pressure, rain through serpentinite. It’s one of the chief reasons so many people went to California in the 1840s. Further, I have a hunch, although my geological knowledge is only basic, that this serpentinite I was looking at was probably a proto-jadite stone, which would make sense because jade was more valuable to the Mayans and Aztecs and Zapotecs than was gold, or silver.Crustal Collision Zone

The second reason is this photo  (also pictured in the post) I took on the flight from Flores to Guatemala City this morning. Take a look at it. It’s a collision zone, where the soft margins of the North American plate are running into the harder rock of the Caribbean and Cocos. The mountains look like you’ve shoved a carpet against the wall. One narrow valley is even more interesting. I suspect what’s happened to it, the one that looks kind of like a ladder, is that the rock was pushed together and then pulled apart briefly creating stretch marks, and then pushed back. (This feature can be seen in the Appalachians, as well, which are extremely ancient mountains compared to these in Guatemala.)

The next question, which I am unqualified to pretty much even speculate on, is how the geology and geography effects politics. I reckon I’ll be needing to call a buddy of mine in Austin who is a Guatemalteco and ask him.

More soon . . .

Plato and the Vagina, A Narrative

Arguably I’ve spent too much time lately reading theory; however, since I am returning to graduate school in January, it’s good for me to know what all the cool-kids are thinking and more importantly, how they are speaking. Hence the brush-up on theory.
Georgia O'Keeffe
Today while reading a short tome on post-modernism (yes, another one) I came across this sentence. The context was feminist art. Christopher Butler writes about Judy Chicago’s installation art piece The Dinner Party, which is a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings, each set with a plate and a butterfly, lobster, flowers and others that for all intents and purposes are vaginas. Butler says, “isn’t there a disturbing ‘essentialism’ involved in allowing vulvic imagery to stand for women?”

This sentence actually requires an enormous amount of historical unpacking, straight back to Plato and his “forms.” The author, in essence, is saying, why should the vagina stand in as the form, or formal representation of women?

My reply is simple.
Trajan's Column
You see the photo over to the left? You know what it is? It’s called Trajan’s Column and it kinda looks like a big dick. But maybe I’m being to ‘essentialist’ and you should use the search term “phallic architecture” and see what pops up!

My point here is this: I’m all for feminism in any form or essence.

I’m all for anything that draws attention to the plight of women around the world (and now increasingly here at home in America) denied basic freedoms “essentially” because of their biology.

A woman that cannot make her own reproductive choices is in no way free.

Public Service Announcement

To say or believe, “history is written by the winners,” is to buy (and accept and believe) the entire post-modernist critique of history. Just saying.

Eight and Ten

Ephesus: InscriptionOne personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”

The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?Harbor Road: Ephesus

There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.

Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.Priene

In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.

Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence  there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.

PrieneAnd yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin: 

Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time. 

Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:

Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor. 

But then I read this:

As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.

Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.

When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?

Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.

Eight and ten. Eighteen.
Ornament, Ephesus
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.

I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.

What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Ornament On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?

And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.